A Sicilian Town Sends an Omen of a Much Hotter Future


FLORIDIA, Sicily — Before this week, the small Sicilian town of Floridia had a few claims to fame. The second wife of a Bourbon king was the town’s duchess. The snails that are a local delicacy are raised here. Its surrounding fields won it the greenest city in Italy prize in 2000. Its mayor is among Italy’s youngest.

But now Floridia has become known for something else, something far more ominous. It is perhaps the most blisteringly hot town in the recorded history of Europe, offering Italy and the entire Mediterranean a preview of a sweltering and potentially uninhabitable future brought on by the globe’s changing climate.

“Floridia is now the center of the world when it comes to the climate,” said Mayor Marco Carianni, 24, as he cooled off in the town’s central square on Thursday, a day after a nearby monitoring station registered a temperature of 119.84 degrees Fahrenheit, or nearly 49 degrees Celsius. “We beat Athens.”

On Friday afternoon, that temperature dipped to a brisk 96 degrees. But days earlier, the unprecedented heat rendered Floridia a blindingly bright ghost town, with its bars deserted, its baroque and sand-colored churches darkened, its piazzas emptied.

In the surrounding fields, the area’s famed snails burned in their shells. The relentless sun branded the verdello green lemons with yellow blots and stewed their flesh within. Everyone holed up in their houses. The air-conditioning they blasted prompted blackouts. The digital sign outside the local pharmacy showed an unofficial temperature of 51 Celsius, or nearly 124 Fahrenheit.

The choking heat wave has hardly limited its reach to Floridia, a satellite of the ancient town of Siracusa. For weeks, it has swept all across Italy and the region. Wednesday was just the climax, the unforgiving temperatures the latest event in a summer of heat-induced plagues.

Wildfires and unpredictable winds have torched woodlands in the southern region of Calabria, claimed pastures across Sicily, forests in Sardinia. Officials evacuated residents of a small town near Rome after a wildfire broke out. Greece is still smoldering from its worst fires in decades. Much of Europe is looking at the skies with trepidation, wondering if the winds and weather will bring more choking heat, or hail or floods.

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But for now, it is Floridia that is perched, however precariously, atop Europe’s extreme weather spike.

“We’ve never had heat like this — this is new for us,” Francesco Romano, 27, said as he walked through his lemon and orange groves, next to the area where the instruments recorded the record-shattering temperature, which still has to be verified by international officials. He did not need the validation and was considering planting avocados and other exotic fruits instead of citrus to better withstand the heat. He cut a lemon open; the walls of its carpels had crumbled into a pulpy mush.

“See, it’s rotten,” he said. “This is Wednesday.”

Field laborers leaned their wooden ladders onto the lemon trees, harvesting the good lemons into yellow baskets and discarding the bad.

“It’s terrible for everybody, for the workers and the plants,” said Mario Pignato, 44. “The damage is awful. We’re not talking about a day or a few days, we’re talking about months of heat and hot winds.”

Nearby, Giusy Pappalardo, 49, crunched over a field littered with snail shells and picked up hollow and sun-baked corpses.

“See, this one is cooked inside,” she said, as orange trees singed in a fire stood black across the dried-up stream behind her. “The spike of a day you can survive. But the problem is that it there was not a day of relief.”

She said the lack of any substantial rain after spring, and climbing temperatures that promised a boiling summer, persuaded her to significantly reduce the number of snails she farmed this season. That saved her a terrible financial hit, she said, as many of the ones she raised in a net tunnel died.

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The intense heat essentially stopped the snails in their tracks, as their feet burned on the ground. “They stop, and they die,” she said. Others sought shade under terra-cotta roof shingles she put in the greenhouse, but they died, too. She doubted that the ones that succeeded in burrowing beneath the soil, where they often create a wall to preserve their moisture, survived. “It burned underground,” she said.

Her niece Viviana Pappalardo, 23, who also worked on the farm where they also grew oranges and grapes, said she was worried about the future.

“People don’t understand that the damage is everywhere,” she said, hoping that the extreme temperature in her town, and the fact that “people could feel it on their skin,” would serve as a wake-up call.

“All of us who work in this sector, in agriculture, understand it,” she said. “And we are the base of everything. When you take the broad view, Europe is dying.”

But that sense of urgency seemed to fade with the high heat. By Thursday evening, Floridia’s young people were back at the local pub, down the road from one of Sicily’s best snail restaurants, carousing over beers. They raced their scooters up and down the street and celebrated birthdays. The previous day’s debilitating heat seemed like another thing to talk about.

Still, some seemed truly spooked.

“We suffered,” said Christian Pirruccio, 25, who paused from hanging out with his friends to recount how he felt faint on Wednesday morning as he smoked a cigarette outside. He gave up plans to go to the gym and stayed home with his mother and grandfather, who talked to him about how the autumn rains used to come months earlier. Between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., he said the power went out. “I felt sick,” he said.

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The young mayor held court and checked in on the older residents who, as they do most nights, put on their best clothes and jewelry and gathered in the main square on metal benches that only hours before burned as hot as grills in the afternoon sun. Some of them still could not get over how hot it was.

“I’ve never seen heat like this,” said Nino Bascetta, 70, who had holed up in his house with three air-conditioners blasting on him on Wednesday. He had shut the windows, drew the curtains and closed the shutters out of fear that the heat would shatter the glass. “It was like hibernating.”

But around 9 p.m., with the heat still baking the city, his wife wanted to see her friends.

“I was tired of being cooped up inside,” said his wife, Angela Cannarella, 66, who sat beside him in a black and white striped dress.

They reached the piazza for a standing appointment in what Mr. Bascetta called the “salon of the old people.”

“It seemed like a good idea,” he said. “It wasn’t.”

After a few minutes, they dripped with sweat and decided to get in the car and pump the air-conditioning.

Another group of friends sat around joking about how the town was more part of northern Africa than southern Europe.

Alessandro Genovese, the parish priest of the town’s 18th-century baroque cathedral, wore his priestly collar open in the heat. He said he wanted to seize on all of the interest in his town, with Italian television and global media descending, “to make an appeal” to the United States and other major contributors to climate change to protect the earth, which he called God’s first gift.

“We are destroying Floridia,” he said.


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